Charter Schools in the Portland, Oregon Metro Area

Since the first one opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992, charter schools have captivated school reformers, originally on the political right but increasingly from the center-left. Largely an urban phenomenon, charter schools in some 70 plus cities now enroll three million students across 44 states and the District of Columbia in 6,900 charter schools. Fifty-five percent of enrolled students nationwide are black or Hispanic, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says, and more than a third qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty.

Here is a link to the Oregon Department of Education website to charter schools in Oregon (Excel spreadsheet). Another list of charter schools operating in Oregon from the Charter School Tools website.  The were over 30,000 students enrolled in charter schools in Oregon in the 2015-16 school year.


Forty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow for charter schools according to the Center for Education Reform (CER). The laws vary considerably in composition. CER says that only three — Washington, DC, Minnesota, and California — have laws that provide optimal conditions for the establishment, growth and success of charters. Only nine other states have strong laws on the books and have seen demonstrated student achievement gains.

CER states that charter schools across the United States are funded at 61 percent of their district counterparts, averaging $6,585 per pupil compared to $10,771 per pupil at conventional district public schools.

CER statement on their website, “Oregon has a weak charter school bill because they have limited authorizers. Oregon only allows for local school boards to serve as authorizers for charter schools which has led to substantial regulations for those schools and prevented them from growing. In particular districts being the only authorizer has led to a large funding inequity that exists for charter school students as local school districts are empowered to take up to 20 percent of per pupil funding as an authorizer fee.”

The charter movement includes many well-known celebrities and billionaires, including New York hedge fund managers and the singers John Legend and Sting, who performed at a fundraiser for Harlem charter schools at Lincoln Center. Charters have also become a pet cause of what one education historian calls a billionaires’ club of philanthropists, including Bill Gates, Eli Broad of Los Angeles and the Walton family of Wal-Mart.

The Oregon Department of Education received an $8.79 million federal grant to increase the quality of public charter schools in Oregon between 2015-2018. This grant is designed to support newer public charter schools in Oregon and disseminate best practices from effective charter schools to the rest of the public education system.

Oregon Charter School Laws

Oregon’s charter law, passed in 1999, allows start-up charter schools, as well as public school and alternative education program conversions. A charter school in Oregon is a public school operated by a group of parents, teachers and community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district. It is given the authority to operate under a contract or “charter” between the members of the charter school community and the local board of education. The school must be nonsectarian. A public charter school is a school of choice. Students may choose to attend the charter school even if the school is not in their attendance area. Applications may not be submitted to convert an existing private school into a charter school.

The law provides for a Charter School Development Fund consisting of federal and other funds for charter school development. The law also requires districts to make available lists of vacant and unused public and private buildings for charter school facilities.

CER ranks Oregon’s charter school law 21st weakest of the nation’s 41 laws, with an overall grade of “C.” The CER Web site gives a brief rundown of the Oregon Charter School law to include operational autonomy.

Here is what the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says about the Oregon charter school law.

“Oregon’s law is cap-free and is relatively strong on charter autonomy. However, the law needs significant work on ensuring equitable operational and categorical funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities. The law also needs a general fine-tuning in relation to the model law’s four “quality control” components (number six through nine), while also providing additional authorizing options beyond local school boards for charter applicants.”

There are efforts to change the law. In the 2011 Oregon legislative session House Bill 2287 was introduced. House Bill 2287 would tweak the process for creating a charter school under a decade-old law allowing the publicly funded, privately run institutions in Oregon. It would require a five-year contract for new schools, limit a school board’s ability to ask for more information from charter seekers and eliminate a requirement that community groups be involved in the planning of a charter school. It also would allow organizations proposing a new charter school to appeal to the state Board of Education if they feel the school district isn’t negotiating in good faith or is delaying the process. Oregon Stand for Children chapter voted to support House Bill 2287 with some amendments, giving the bill’s chances at success a boost. On Monday, March 14, the bill was defeated 32-28. In the vote, 29 Democrats and three Republicans opposed the bill. Those Republicans were three of only five Republicans supported by the teachers union in the last election.

Do Charter Schools Work?

The majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. In 2009 one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Although “charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers,” the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well” as students in traditional schools.

What most experts can agree on is that charter school quality varies widely and that it is often associated with the rigor of authorities that grant charters. New York, where oversight is strong, is known for higher performing schools. Ohio, Arizona, and Texas, where accountability is minimal, showed up in the author’s study with many poorly performing schools. Its author, Margaret E. Raymond, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a bastion of libertarianism. Ms. Raymond’s study did show that learning improved the longer students were in charters.

Successful Charter Schools

Researchers for the Raymond study and others pointed to a successful minority of charter schools — numbering perhaps in the hundreds — and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.

The differences in how schools are run, the way classes are taught and how school culture is nourished are striking. Successful charters show that high- and low-performing schools often seem to operate alike. They require student uniforms, a longer day and academic year, frequent testing to measure learning, and tutoring for students who fall behind. They imitate one another in superficial ways, too, like hanging inspirational banners.

From a few yeas of experience in operating charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, a playbook is emerging. It turns out you need government accreditation to drive quality, and the human capital to make schools go. The lesson for success is dependent on human capital.

A source to understanding how difficult it is to change the lives of poor children is a book called Whatever It Takes authored by Paul Tough. Geoffrey Canada, if you haven’t heard of him already, is the man behind the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a hugely ambitious effort to improve lives in a 97-block swath of New York City. The book will change your understanding of poverty.

In 2007, President George W. Bush visited a Harlem charter, but President Obama has done him one better, pledging to use the Harlem Children’s Zone, as a model for high-poverty urban areas. The administration’s Race to the Top competition, which waves the carrot of $4.3 billion in education aid to states that comply with administration goals, has prompted three so far — Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee — to lift limits on the number of charter schools. Advocates say there has never been more political momentum from Washington in favor of charter schools.

Nonprofit networks of charter operators with top-flight schools — outfits like Uncommon, KIPP and Aspire Public Schools — have created about 350 in the past decade and required $500 million in philanthropic support, according to Thomas Toch, author of a study on many of the groups underwritten by the New Schools Venture Fund. He questioned whether successful charters could be “scaled up” without sacrificing quality and without heavy subsidies from private donors.

Obstacles to Starting a Charter School in Portland

There is no doubt that teachers’ unions, as well as many school districts, are not fans of charters. Critics of charter schools and their political allies say the schools rely on a corps of young teachers who are willing to work 60-hour weeks, but who burn out quickly.

Take the case of an attempt to secure a charter school in the Portland Public Schools (PPS) a few years ago by parents in Southwest Portland. The parents were mainly from the neighborhood of Smith Elementary that closed in June 2005. The parents wanted to create a charter elementary school in their vision and pattern it after a couple of successful environmental schools. PPS rejected their application so the parents took advantage of the Oregon Charter School law whereas charter schools denied sponsorship by their local districts has the option to appeal to the state board of education for sponsorship. The organizers applied to the Oregon Department of Education and were promptly approved − Southwest Charter was now official. The Southwest Charter School organizers then approached PPS about renting Smith Elementary. PPS offered the charter school the Smith building for $40,000 a month rent. $40,000 a month was too expensive, and it seemed PPS would rather have that space empty than rent to a charter school at a reasonable rent, so Southwest Charter was forced to rent space in an office building. PPS admitted it would compete with them for students in Southwest Portland.

Smith Elementary sits vacant today, and the only revenue that PPS earned was a short-term lease to another school district while that district remodeled their K-8 school. They claimed they need the building as a backup to house students in case one of the PPS school building need remodeling.

Most of these facts about the efforts to obtain accreditation for Southwest Charter were documented in an article dated October 30, 2009, in the Portland Tribune. We did learn about the $40,000 rent from a charter school advocate.

There are eleven charters schools that are within Portland Public School district as of 2011. See the Portland Public Schools webpage for a list. Southwest Charter and The Ivy School, the two schools within the PPS district and that were approved by the Oregon Department of Education are not on the list. PPS refuses to acknowledge their existence even though these two schools are within the PPS district. You can read reviews about Southwest Charter as well as other Portland-area charter schools at the Great Schools website.

Of the 25 applications for charter school sponsorship since 1999, the Portland school board has approved 11 and rejected 10. The ten rejections are more than all other districts in the state combined.

Here is some current information about Southwest Charter. The school changed its name to Cottonwood School of Civics and Science. It’s a K-8, tuition-free, public charter school located in the South Waterfront which offers a different educational experience, encouraging exploration of the natural world and involvement in the local community through the arts and sciences. 

How a Charter School Saved Elkton, Oregon From Losing Its School

elkton_schoolsWhen newly hired superintendent Mike Hughes arrived in Elkton overlooking the Umpqua River in 2008, Elkton School District was dying. With dwindling enrollment and a state funding crisis, Hughes told community members the 130-student K-12 school would likely have to close its doors within two to three years. Now, nearly three years later, Elkton has new computers, new curriculum and materials and nearly 80 new students.

What changed? Elkton became a charter school. Elkton School District is one of a growing number of rural and remote school districts in Oregon that are using the charter school law to survive.

Throughout the Portland metropolitan area, school districts have cut school days, eliminated teaching positions and programs to cope with declines in state revenue and federal support. In rural areas, though, a similar decline in revenue can completely wipe out a district’s transportation staff, counselor and math and science teachers.

Oregon’s charter school law, intended to be an avenue of innovation, prevents districts from turning all their schools into charters. But if the district has only one K-12 school, state law provides an exception. And with the charter school designation comes access to $500,000 federal grants and fewer state requirements. It’s a little-used clause in the charter school law but becoming more common. The number of Oregon districts making the switch has more than doubled to 12 since 2008. Three single-school districts have alerted the Oregon Department of Education they intend to apply for 2011 federal charter school grants.

With the school’s walking distance proximity to the Umpqua River, Hughes created a natural resources-focused academy. At the elementary school building, students are making use of a long-defunct land lab that allows kids to follow trails to an area where they can study soil samples, mold, fungus, leaves and trees. High schoolers are visiting estuaries and preparing to start two local businesses. “I’m not a science person at all,” said Kodye Harvey, 15. “But we’re getting the hands-on experience. We’re getting out of the classroom, and it makes it real.”

The kids keep coming. Already, enrollment has surpassed what Hughes outlined in his five-year plan. In the 2008-09 school year, the district enrolled about 130 kids, and just a few years later, the school hit 200. Charter schools in Triangle Lake, Imbler and North Powder have also experienced enrollment growth since becoming charter schools. Increased enrollment increases state funding. But, as these districts become charters to ensure their survival, it has created tense relationships with neighbors.

Elkton is sending school buses into five neighboring districts to pick up students. One superintendent said he was appalled and offended by Hughes’ action. Enrollment has also been a point of contention between adjacent Imbler and La Grande school districts and between North Powder and Baker schools.

Source: “Oregon’s rural schools look to charter status to survive,” by Kimberly Melton. December 17, 2010, The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Charter Schools in the Portland Area

The Center for Advanced Learning (CAL) is a regional public secondary education system, which extends learning opportunities for students attending the high schools of Centennial, Corbett, Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds school districts. It is the largest charter school (about 500 students) in the metro area. Students attend classes at their home campuses every other day and come to the charter school on the off days for specialized classes. At CAL, students take advanced courses in three technology-based fields: information technology, medical/health sciences, and engineering/advanced manufacturing.

CM2 Opal School was founded in 2001. Today the school has 80 students in grades K through 5 in three classrooms at the Children’s Museum in Washington Park. Influenced by the early childhood centers in Reggio Emilia, Italy, the approach is based on listening rather than speaking and thinking that children can build their learning. In addition to the charter school, the museum is also home to the Museum School, a for-fee preschool, and early kindergarten program.

Here are other charter schools in the metro area.

  • ACE Academy (Academy for Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) Students spend half of their time in their junior and senior years at ACE, and the rest at their home high schools, combining professional skills with regular classroom teaching.
  • Arco Iris (grades K-5) is a free public Spanish immersion school based in Beaverton they are the community’s first charter school. Arco Iris offers an education program that includes Singapore Math as well as Spanish immersion. Arco Iris offers before and after school enrichment programs. They are a K-5 school (private full day Kindergarten) and plans to become a K-8 school.
  • Le Monde Immersion School The school will open in 2012. It begins with kindergarten and first grade in the 2012-2013 school year, and then to add one year each year until reaching full strength at K-8 in 2019-20. French is the second most studied language in the world after English. It is the official language of 30 countries, including many in Africa, and the official language, along with English, of the United Nations.
  • Reynolds School District  The Reynolds School District has a number if charter schools for all grade levels.
  • Trillium School (K-12) operates in the Portland School District.


  • Center for Education Reform  Full of facts and opinions about charter schools.
  • Charter Schools  A source of information about charter schools.
  • National Alliance for Public Charter Schools  A nonprofit organization advancing the charter school movement. Their goal is to increase the number of high-quality charter schools available to all families, particularly in disadvantaged communities that lack access to quality public schools.
  • Education Northwest (NWCEO)  An Oregon non-profit resource center that collaboratively creates and advocates for the development, operation, sponsorship, and accountability of public charter schools throughout the Pacific Northwest.
  • Oregon Department of Education  The Oregon Department of Education has some information about Oregon charter Schools at their site.
  • Public Charters  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (National Alliance) is the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the public charter school movement.
Waiting for Superman


For an entertaining evening, watch Waiting for Superman. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of the movie. It follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.
Critics say much-hyped education documentary unfairly targets teachers unions and promotes charter schools.





A book entitled Whatever It Takes authored by Paul Tough will change your understanding of poverty. It’s the story of Geoffrey Canada‘s ambitious effort to improve lives in a 97-block swath of New York City,



Charter Schools
Visit the  National Alliance for Charter Schools website to learn more about about Oregon charter schools. The National Center for Education Statistics has a page on their website about charter schools. The Oregon Department of Education also has information about Oregon charter schools at their website. US News rates Oregon charter high schools.




Charter Schools Enrollment
As of 2015, over 125 charter schools are operating in Oregon with a total enrollment of 30,500 students according to CER.




Annual Report on
Portland Metro Schools
Each year, the Portland Monthly magazine reports on over 600 schools in the metro area and make what they referred to as a “crib sheet.” The sheet gives school rankings, test scores, and statistics that will help you evaluate the schools without the need for in-depth study. Click here to access their online site and then use their search tool to find the latest report by inserting “schools” and the current year in the search box.




Community and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS) – the Portland chapter of Parents for Public Schools – is part of a nationwide network of grassroots organizations focused on increasing parent, family and community involvement in public education. CPPS actively recruits parents to public schools, and advocates for parents taking a role in decision-making, school improvement, and accountability.




School Funding


Income taxes now pay for more than half of school operating expenses.
About 6% comes from the state lottery. Local revenues (mostly property taxes) provide about 30% of school funding.
58% of state income taxes are spent on education, including K-12, community colleges, and universities.
Sources: US Census Bureau, National Education Association, Quality Education Commission, and 2005 NAEP test data.




Tracking School


Open Book$$ tracks the total operations spending of Oregon’s 198 school districts and shows the spending in charts. Visitors can compare their district with the statewide average and other districts of similar size.




 Chalkboard Project


The Chalkboard Project is a collaborative effort led by five Oregon charitable foundations, which banded together in 2003, to study ways to improve Oregon schools.




Portland Metro Schools Report Cards
Oregon law (ORS 329.105) requires that the Oregon Department of Education issue performance reports for public schools. These performance reports shall include school ratings for overall school performance, student performance, student behavior, and school characteristics.
View the Report Cards for the Oregon schools at Report Cards.